Little Pend Oreille National Wildlife Area: Refuge fires boost habitat

Habitat management is a never-ending job at the Little Pend Oreille National Wildlife Area, and fire is a natural tool.

“Unlike a tree farm, we look at the trees and all the vegetation under them for their potential wildlife habitat,” said Jerry Cline, refuge manager.

Having been homesteaded before it became a refuge, most of the timber on the refuge has been cut once or twice in the past century.

“There was little forestry going on. The new forest was just left to grow,” Cline said. The logging followed by fire suppression led to lodgepole pine growing into denser stands than would have evolved in a natural situation, he said.

The refuge has a plan to thin the refuge forest a bit at a time, allowing the remaining trees to grow stronger while removing fuel that could explode into a devastating fire.

“Then we use prescribed fire at the right times of the year to reduce the fuels without burning up the bigger trees,” Cline said. “Fire in a ponderosa pine habitat is a normal regenerative occurrence that brings back a lot of the shrubs for wildlife use.

“We’re gradually replacing the thick lodgepole stands with a variety of Douglas fir, larch and ponderosas.”

Since 2000, Cline estimates 35-40 percent of the refuge forest has been treated.

“We’re coming up on 15 years since we started the fire-habitat management so it’s almost time to go back in and give some areas another dose of fire,” he said. “The natural cycle for fire in a ponderosa pine forest is 7-14 years.”

Rich Landers

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Rich Landers

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